A fun leftover from yesterday, in which the Paper of Record tries to answer the age-old question: Are the tweets bluer on the other side of the fence? Excuse me, the toots?
The New York Times took a closer look at the new Mastodon instant-messaging platform to which reporters of all stripes — but mainly progressives — have recently decamped. The selling point for the service is its decentralization as well as its collaborative moderation, at least theoretically. In practice, however, it looks more like a confused mess where “journalists” eat their own rather than practice tolerance, including at the Journa.host note funded in large part by the J-school at CUNY:
Journa.host received $12,000 in funding from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, which has been used so far to pay server and domain registration fees.” …
And some of the relative calm Mr. Davidson sees may also be a function of journa.host’s narrow user base. It’s a server just for journalists — or more accurately, the people the administrators of journa.host deem to be journalists. That has led to accusations (on Twitter, where else?) that the server is an attempt by the moderators to “gatekeep their peers.”
In response, Mr. Weiss said that being denied entry to journa.host doesn’t currently prevent access to journa.host content, which users of many other Mastodon servers can see.
Regardless, any attempt to turn journa.host into a walled garden, free from the issues of Twitter, is probably doomed to fail: The conflicts that have at times inflamed Twitter have already caused problems for Mr. Davidson and his team.
To wit, pay heed to the cautionary story of podcaster Mike Pesca of “The Gist,” who had the temerity to link to … the New York Times. Last week, the NYT reported on rising health concerns over the use of puberty blockers, which Pesca linked and described as “careful, thorough reporting.” (The NYT was happy to note this, of course.)
Let’s let Pesca tell the rest of the story — which it turned out he could only do on Twitter:
But wait — it gets better! Parker Molloy’s fellow journalists also gave her the boot, although she’s not terribly put out by it either:
Also on Saturday, Ms. Molloy appeared on a different Mastodon server, and announced that she, too, had been suspended from journa.host for her posts.
“Did it break their rules over there? Yes, so they were certainly in their rights to suspend me from there,” she wrote. And then, in a subsequent post she wrote, “I mostly just want to be left alone.” (Later, Ms. Molloy posted an apology to Mr. Pesca.)
That’s a distinction worth noting, too. Molloy remains able to contribute to overall Mastodon; she just moved to a different collective. Pesca could have done the same thing, but apparently he didn’t think it was worth the bother. Reason used this dust-up to point out the inherent contradictions between Mastodon’s decentralization and the expectation of its culture that moderation will be both more emphatic and viewpoint-defined:
The journa.host controversy illustrates how Mastodon’s rapid growth is forcing it to confront one of its founding contradictions. On the one hand, simply by dint of Mastodon’s decentralized nature and the reality that no content or user can be banned from the network entirely, it is categorically more protective of speech than is any other platform. In this sense, Mastodon, not Twitter, is (as Twitter once called itself) the “free speech wing of the free speech party.”
On the other hand, much of the dominant culture of Mastodon–at least before the recent influx of Twitter users–has been supportive of fairly heavy moderation, especially of users and content that is viewed as far-right. As Mastodon’s creator Eugen Rochko noted, “One of the things that gave impetus to the creation of Mastodon was a lack of moderation on Twitter against hate groups. The ‘no nazis’ rule of the original mastodon.social server … continues to serve as a major attraction of the project.” The norm of aggressive moderation is also a reflection of the fact that Mastodon, unlike most other social media platforms, originated not in the United States but in Europe (specifically Germany, where the Mastodon nonprofit is based), which has more permissive legal and cultural norms around speech restrictions.
Another example of Mastodon trying to accomplish through norms what it has foreclosed as a matter of architecture is the “Mastodon server covenant,” which was introduced in 2019. The covenant is a set of requirements that instances have to meet to be listed on the Mastodon organization’s website.
These requirements include “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia” such that users “have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, anti-semitism and transphobia of other platforms.” But the covenant does not–indeed cannot–require any particular Mastodon instance to abide by these requirements. A non-compliant instance may not be listed on the Mastodon organization’s website, but it remains a full-fledged member of the Mastodon network.
Mastodon looks like the worst of both worlds for those hoping to police debate. They can succeed in shutting down an account for perceived injustices, but only in their own collective, while accounts at other collectives still retain full access to the overall platform. Unless the activists really like a good game of Whack-a-Mole, the upside for Mastodon looks very limited over the more centralized Twitter, even with laxer standards.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver observed Sunday that Mastodon so far looks like a collective of hall monitors with much less power than they think they have:
For his part, Elon Musk is just enjoying the show from afar, as long as it stays afar:
I’ll pass on the Mastodon mess. In the end, I suspect most people will, especially when it becomes clear that Twitter isn’t going to blink out of existence just because Musk will only employ 1,000 people rather than 7,500. In this case, and only in this case, I’ll take Billy Joel’s advice — I’d rather laugh with the social-media sinners than cry with the self-appointed saints, but not because the sinners are much more fun. It’s because the sinners are much less tiresome.
- It’s been two weeks since the midterm election — and we still don’t have results in all of the House elections. Andrew Malcolm and I discuss those failures as well as more of Joe Biden’s.
- We also preview the upcoming primary fight between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis and wonder whether other candidates will leave it at that. Or do we get 17 people on stage again in 2023’s debates?
- Plus, we also wonder whether America is in another Age of Presidential Mediocrities in the post-Cold War era.